S. Carey on Fatherhood and His New Album “Break Me Open” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, December 11th, 2023  

S. Carey on Fatherhood and His New Album “Break Me Open”

Vulnerable, Personal, and Ready for the Next Chapter

Apr 20, 2022 Photography by Peter Larson Web Exclusive
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There’s a certain eerie vulnerability present in every second of S. Carey’s music. While some of that musical ambience can be attributed to his on-record identity—using only the first letter of his first name, Sean, in his stage name lends some mystique to his persona—his soft-spoken vocal delivery, layered harmonies, and scrupulous attention to detail all contribute heartily to a divine atmosphere that goes beyond that of a traditional folk singer/songwriter. But, in his words, there is still much work to be done, especially when it comes to the expression of his own emotions.

“Being self-aware is something that I’m trying to do more of,” Carey tells Under the Radar shortly before the release of his fourth studio album, Break Me Open (which is out this Friday on Jagjaguwar). “I’m trying to be better and trying to take that another degree further, which is showing that in the music.”

If being self-aware and vulnerable was the goal, then Break Me Open accomplished that and much, much more. Written in the aftermath of his father’s death and the implosion of his marriage, the dark and prescient record is majestically expansive and warmly tender, blending lush strings and powerful piano lines to create a uniquely enveloping listening experience.

Carey, a native of Eau Claire, Wis., is perhaps best known as the drummer and backup vocalist of Bon Iver, Justin Vernon’s maniacally gorgeous indie folk project that, over the last decade, has become nearly synonymous with the type of melancholic calmness that has permeated the genre’s inner circles. In most of Bon Iver’s prominent performances, Carey can be seen behind Vernon, shadowing his musician introspection and adding harmonic color to “Skinny Love,” “Flume,” and “Holocene,” among other serene arrangements.

Still, differences do exist between Vernon’s style and that of Carey; on Break Me Open, Carey takes a distinctly more direct approach to some of the nebulous narratives that have long been the staple of Vernon’s falsetto murmurs. This time around, Carey opted to begin writing songs on a synth rather than the guitar or piano upon which he previously began writing. Still, he acknowledges that his style will always be compared to Vernon’s, at least to some extent.

“I think there’s plenty [of] differences between our style and our aesthetics,” Carey contends. “But, having a lot of synths and embracing more electronic sounds and then all the vocal processing, I understand the comparisons.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Carey pivoted to a topic that he’d seldom addressed in his past efforts: fatherhood. With his children—aged four, six, and eight—growing fast, and Carey’s tour-heavy lifestyle leaving little time for family, it seemed as though reflection was appropriate. Though much different than the themes he and Vernon usually focus on—depressing heartbreak, the wonders of nature, and otherworldly spirituality among them—it contrasts well with the heavier and more existential tone of his existing catalog.

Much to Carey’s chagrin though, his children weren’t all that interested in hearing their dad’s heartfelt expressions of fatherly love, at least not when presented with the record for the first time.

“At one point, I tried to play one of the songs in the car, but they weren’t really listening,” Carey laughs awkwardly. “I was like, ‘Alright, another time!’”

Despite that initial antipathy, Carey hopes that, one day, he will be able to share the record with his children, who hopefully will understand its gravity and importance within their lives.

Geographically speaking, Break Me Open is, unsurprisingly, inspired by Carey’s home state of Wisconsin. But, as synonymous as Carey is with the state’s snowy forests and gently rolling hills, part of the record was actually recorded in the seaside town of Gualala, Calif., which served as somewhat of an escape for Carey and co-producers Zach Hanson (Sylvan Esso, The Tallest Man on Earth) and Chris Messina (The Staves, Electric Touch).

It was over the course of three days in California that the three put the finishing touches on the record’s 10 songs, living simplistically in a barn-style home they found on Airbnb. A photographer and a session musician notwithstanding, the three were completely isolated to produce the tracks and posit the way they wanted them to come across on record.

“It was beautiful,” he remembers. “We couldn’t see the ocean, but we could hear it and it was really, really enjoyable.”

Musically, Carey was inspired by the likes of Ethan Gruska, Blake Mills, and, namely, Sigur Rós, an influence he credits with making his songwriting darker and experimental. Though Break Me Open can hardly be considered a Sigur Rós copycat—there are no epic tales of Norse mythology and 10-minute arias to speak of—Carey’s diverse pool of influences are palpable, both sonically and narratively.

“I think I wanted to make something darker and dynamic,” Carey remarks, noting the divergence between Break Me Open and his previous effort, the metaphysical and grassy Hundred Acres in 2018.

In the end, the album coalesces as a complex set of emotions set against a tragically precise musical backdrop. From the angelic and airy chords of “Waking Up” to the choral melodies of “Sunshower” to the personal and philosophically retrospective “Paralyzed,” Break Me Open is Carey’s most personal and revealing effort. It has all the depth and melancholy one expects from Carey, but with a freeing and lustral exterior that makes it all the more satisfying to experience. As the one who unleashed the pensive work into the world, Carey was understandably satisfied with the record and, for all the chaos the last two years brought, feels more comforted for having created it.

“It’s definitely the most intimate and most exposing record,” he admits. “It was quite cathartic for me to write it and work on it.”


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